Context: Many observers believe that the policy response to the opioid crisis is less punitive than the crack scare and that the reason is that victims are (stereotypically) white.
Methods: To assess this conjecture, we compile new longitudinal data on district-level drug-related deaths and (co)sponsorship of legislation on drug abuse in the House of Representatives over the past four decades. Using legislator fixed effects models, we then test how changes in drug-related death rates in legislators' districts predict changes in (co)sponsorship of treatment-oriented or punitive legislation in the subsequent year and assess whether these relationships vary by race of victim or drug type.
Findings: Policy makers were more likely to introduce punitive drug-related bills during the crack scare and are more likely to introduce treatment-oriented bills during the current opioid crisis. The relationship between district-level drug deaths and subsequent sponsorship of treatment-oriented legislation is greater for opioid deaths than for cocaine-related deaths and for white victims than for black victims. By contrast, district-level drug deaths are not significantly related to sponsorship of punishment-oriented bills.
Conclusions: These results suggest that the racial inequalities and double standards of drug policy still persist but in different forms.